Behind my in-laws’ house in Fredericksburg, Va., runs a power line, a perch for red-tailed hawks, hanging from tall wooden poles. The utility company used to keep the ground beneath the wires free of trees and most of the underbrush. As recently as four years ago my wife and I walked the cut-back trail and watched white-tailed deer feeding by swimming pools in the backyards of suburban houses. Now the path is choked with blackberry thickets, goldenrod, sumac, poison ivy and saplings of red oak, tulip, wild cherry, poplar and laurel. Walking is curtailed but voluptuous greenery, laurel in particular, is beautiful. Chaucer was right: “…a fresh grene laurer tree… / That gave so passing a delicious smelle…”
Even before I think of Chaucer, or Apollo and Daphne, the sight of laurel brings to mind three words, the final line of a poem by Yvor Winters, a sort of poetic counterpoint to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” -- “On Teaching the Young”:
“The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.
“A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.
“Few minds will come to this.
The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude—
Laurel, archaic, rude.”
We can only imagine what Winters would make of an age that takes John Ashbery and Sharon Olds seriously and even judges them poets. Laurel implies triumph or distinction – notions denigrated as “elitist,” as though the best poems were anything but a triumph of distinction over mediocrity. Helen Pinkerton echoes the themes of “On Teaching the Young” in “Autumn Drought” (Taken in Faith: Poems), a poem she dedicates to Winters, her former teacher who died in 1968. The dedication reads “In memory of Yvor Winters—Stanford University 1976”:
“November brings no rain. Brown stubble blackens.
Torn paper litter, wind-blown with the leaves,
Piles up against dead stems. As traffic slackens,
Nightfall brings fear, and always now one grieves.
“Where I once listened, lonely as these young,
But with some hope beyond what I could see
That meaning might be mastered by my tongue,
Anonymous process now claims them and me.
“Perhaps the enterprise of mind is vain;
Where hucksters sell opinions, knowledge fails,
Wit pandering to the market, for gross gain,
Corrupted words, false morals, falser tales.
“Though one I loved taught here, provoking strife,
By speaking truth about the human word,
And died—as few men do—ready for life,
I, teaching in his absence, seem absurd,
“Seem almost unremembering, unawake.
And should his poems live—some consolation
To those who knew him and to those who take
His measure by their worth—their celebration
“Will not be here, not where the idle gaze,
Touristic, slides past phoenix psalms to stare
Where Mount Diablo dominates through haze
The ever-diminishing waters and the glare.”
The notion that “meaning might be mastered by my tongue” will seem quaint to some readers and writers. Pinkerton’s poem recalls one written by another former Winters student, Edgar Bowers’ “For Louis Pasteur,” in which he asks: “How shall a generation know its story / If it will know no other?” Pinkerton honors the triumph and distinction of Winters, “speaking truth about the human word,” and posthumously crowns him poet laureate, at least for some of us.